Frieda J. Behlen is remembered as a talented, dedicated, and beloved clinician, teacher, mentor, and friend. Her unwavering commitment to OT, along with her talents for organization, creativity, love and compassion for her students, enabled her to found NYU’s Department of Occupational Therapy. This was accomplished in an era when, as part of a group of pioneers in the field, she helped to establish norms and set standards for occupational therapy education.
Behlen was known for treating students with kindness and respect. There are numerous anecdotes, shared at alumni reunions, of her having enabled students whom she felt had the potential to be good therapists to succeed. Not only did she provide counseling about personal situations, but was known to make personal loans if finances were an obstacle. She also established the first part-time program in OT to allow students to work while attending. For this reason the Frieda J. Behlen Occupational Therapy Scholarship was endowed in 1998 as a memorial to this exceptional educator.
In 1940, New York University initiated its occupational therapy curriculum within the School of Education’s Vocational Education Programs. Having earned a certificate from the Philadelphia School of Occupational Therapy, Ms. Behlen was employed as an OT at Kings County Hospital. There she made a strong impression upon those with whom she came into professional contact. While at Kings County Hospital, she was enrolled in a general shop course at NYU when she was asked to complete her studies for the B.S. degree and direct the OT program.
There were 15 students in the first class. Students could pursue either a certificate or a B.S. in occupational therapy. In the early 1940’s, the only therapeutic media were crafts. The curriculum followed the AOTA guidelines of OT theory: Many hours of crafts; lectures in psychiatry, medicine, and surgery; a practicum in rehabilitation at the Institute for the Crippled and Disabled; and twelve months of clinical affiliations (three in psychiatry, two in general hospital, two in orthopedics, three in pulmonary, and two in pediatrics).
During World War II Frieda Behlen continued to speak at career days in high schools, applied for government stipends, selected applicants, taught most of the OT theory courses, supervised the clinical affiliations, completed her own degree and built the professional programs while earning her own bachelor’s degree.
After World War II, with an influx of students to NYU under the GI Bill, enrollment in the OT programs expanded dramatically. The post-professional master’s program for therapists with a bachelor’s degree was initiated in the 1950’s. In the 1960’s the certificate program in OT was discontinued. Frieda Behlen chaired what became the Department of Occupational Therapy until her retirement in 1972.
Arnold Goren, a retired Vice Chancellor of New York University, at1998 tribute to Behlen, pointed out that she, “Taught us about occupational therapy.” He described her as strong, intelligent, organized, able to go after and generally get what she needed. He noted that she was great fun, besides. Prof. Goren summed up his recollection by declaring her, “…one hell of a dame”.